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 the assassination of Malcolm and the beatings on the Selma bridge hit me like

a slap in the face. When I was discharged in 1965, I had . . . come to believe

more radical action was necessary if there was ever going to be real change in America. 



Books by Tom Dent


Southern Journey / Blue Lights and River Songs /


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Southern Journey

A Return to the Civil Rights Movement

By Tom Dent


Reviewed by Rudolph Lewis


Tom Dent's Southern Journey: A Return to the Civil Rights Movement (1996) is the most significant book that has been written in the last two decades. It is a much neglected necessary book that should be in everyone's library if they want any understanding of the new post-civil rights South and the precarious situation that black Southerners find themselves. 

I'm a bit ashamed that I have just now read Southern Journey, almost ten years after its publication. It's not that I did not know the man or his family or his accomplishments or this book. I met Tom in the mid-80s. In the thirties and forties, his father Albert Dent  was president of Dillard and both Tom and his father had a relationship with my favorite poet Marcus Bruce Christian.  And I had read Tom's essay “Marcus B. Christian: A Reminiscence and an Appreciation.”  I had also written a biographical piece on his mother Jessie Covington Dent. And I had read Jerry Ward's The Art of Tom Dent  and Kalamu ya Salaam's My Father Is Dead and other comments of their work with the Free Southern Theatre. And Tom's brother Ben had in addition sent me photos of both Tom and their mother. But I had not read Southern Journey.

But this neglect is typical of the cultural lag many of us find ourselves. Last July 2005 I took my own southern journey--from Baltimore, MD to Jarratt, VA (my family home); to Charleston, SC to Savannah, GA; to Jacksonville and Tallahassee; to New Orleans and then back north through the Mississippi Delta to Memphis, passing through Greensboro and back through Virginia to Baltimore. That was a whirlwind tour of six days. Tom's journey took about eleven months and was probably much more expensive than my own. I had a companion; Tom traveled alone: Greensboro to Orangeburg to St. Augustine to Albany (GA) to Selma to the Mississippi Delta.

Tom is a cool cat. He's subtle like vodka (Sneaky Pete), and then BAM! he's knocked off your socks, and seeped deep down into your soul. So if you can get ten pages into Southern Journey, he's got you and you can't stop and don't want to stop until he's had his say about Mississippi and the Delta. I can see him still with Unita Blackwell, on the levee, looking across the Mississippi River, saying goodbye to a time (a past) that will never come again. But one that needs to be remembered.

Though there are great reports and reflections throughout Southern Journey, the sections that stand out most for me, that touched me personally, were the story of Nelson Johnson in Greensboro, the story of Mary Moultrie and the Charleston 1199 Strike, and the story of SNCC organizer Cleve Sellers and the police shootings at South Carolina State (in which three students were killed and numerous students wounded, shot in the back fleeing gunfire from behind a campus mound).

The extraordinary twists and turns of Nelson Johnson's story reminded me of my own and many that I've known and many that have passed. While in college at North Carolina A & T, Johnson began volunteer tutorial work within the black community. "It bothered me," Johnson explained to Tom, "that a lot of the black kids requested white tutors. . . . I wondered what it meant, this preference for white tutors. . . . We thought it was perpetrating an already weak sense of black identity." While in the military in Germany Johnson knew of the Muslims and the "militant speeches of Malcolm X."

My friends were liking Malcolm. In contrast, I argued to my heart's end the virtues of nonviolent resistance to racism, even though my friends were derisive. I argued hard, but the assassination of Malcolm and the beatings on the Selma bridge hit me like a slap in the face. When I was discharged in 1965, I had left the positions of the NAACP and Martin Luther King, and had come to believe more radical action was necessary if there was ever going to be real change in America. 

I want to assure you, however, that I have always respected King as a person.

Johnson's tutorial work led to more serious and conscious work within the black community. In 1968 was formed the Greensboro Association of Poor People (GAPP). Though supported by the  Foundation for Community Development in Durham and the NAACP, GAPP in its work came to be considered radical. Johnson initiated rent strikes:


We decided to try to get the company to fix up the houses. When they didn't we set up a system to collect the rents from the tenants ourselves, and pay rents only when improvements were made. The realty company retaliated by evicting the tenants whose rents we were withholding. We then helped move those thrown out on the street, and we were able to find a church willing to help us locate new housing; we just got a tremendous response from people who were willing to help. Then we destroyed the houses from which people were evicted. . . . whatever destruction can be done with an ax. . . . the idea was, you can't just throw people out on the street without paying a price.

By 1969 Nelson was involved in organizing high school and college students and the creation of the Student Organizations for Black Unity (SOBU). On May 21 near midnight an A&T student Willie Grimes was shot in the head. The next day four policemen were shot. The "police and National Guard were brought in and a military occupation took place. . . . I was arrested [for inciting a riot] and sentenced to two years in prison, though I was pardoned before I spent any real time in jail."

Johnson became involved in the "divisive debate between Marxism and nationalism [that] emerged to overshadow everything." Tom goes on to explain the drama:


Poet and essayist Amiri Baraka of Newark was the most prominent former nationalist leader to announce a shift to Marxism, and because he was so influential, Baraka's conversion sent shock waves through the nationalist community.

Nelson Johnson was one of those who chose the Marxist path. On reflection two decades later, Nelson explained:


Both sides had a lot of right. It's a pity we couldn't learn from each other. The Marxists, including myself, did not sufficiently appreciate the depth of culture. For us, it was all economics. But people are more complicated than economic units. And the nationalists didn't always consider seriously enough the economic divisions among black people, and the poverty which crosses racial lines.

Johnson dropped out of school and went into the factories to organize militant unions. Though accused initially of being a Communist, when he wasn't, Johnson joined the party (CWP).  In 1979, Johnson was the leader of an anti-Klan march and rally (billed as "Death to the Klan") that ended with five of the marchers killed, and Johnson "stabbed in the melee following the shootings." The blame fell on Johnson; he was arrested and beaten by the cops. 

Out of jail, "No one would hire me. No one needed me. No one valued my skills. . . . the enforced isolation hurt. People wouldn't meet with me, even though they knew me. This tried my faith. I had to move back to the people, who had always sustained me." In 1985 Johnson returned to A & T as a student and graduated in 1986 and then enrolled in divinity school. He explained to Tom:


I left the church in the late sixties because I felt religion was a lot of hot air. Churches weren't anything in terms of challenging the existing social order. People did not do the things they said they believed in. But later I realized I had mistaken the behavior of people for the ultimate beliefs of religious faith. Once I understood the difference, I could still be very critical of the church as an institution of men and yet respect a vision of a new social order. Let's call it a vision of the "Kingdom," where I feel the worth of persons is affirmed by the measure of "the least of these." 

This was the faith of Jesus. This is the faith I feel many of us grapple toward, even if we can't name it or define it. I came to understand that, in my own way, that's what I've always been trying to do, though I didn't always call it religion. But now I was willing to. I approached the Reverend Mr. Hairston, who had been there for me through thick and thin. At first he was shocked. But he promised to give me a chance.

I was quite moved by Johnson's story and how Tom, who was not a religious, handled it. From my reading,  it seems obvious that Tom too was moved by this "believer" and his sojourn.

In 1969 I was a volunteer with 1199 in Baltimore and its organizing drive in which 5000 hospital and nursing home workers were organized in six months. I stood with Coretta Scott King on Madison Street in front of Johns Hopkins as she greeted and encouraged black women to vote in the union. Later, I was brought on the 1199 staff as an "administrative organizer." After two years, I resigned. But I had heard of the 1969 Charleston Strike and Mary Moultrie but I did not understand exactly what happened and how the Strike developed and ended. 

Southern Journey resolved that mystery for me. I knew some of the players: Andy Young of SCLC and Henry Nicholas of 1199. In the late 80s I worked closely with Henry, though it did not end well. In any event it seemed that Moultrie was the natural leader of the women who struck the state hospital in Charleston. Most of these workers were "island women," from the barrier islands such as Johns Island. They were among the poorest and least educated of Charleston women, working for a $1.35 an hour, subject to the whims of white supervisors and administrators.

The class attitude in Charleston, according to Tom Dent’s report in Southern Journey (1996), is retentive of family relations and the hierarchy of the good ole days of slavery. In 1969 these class attitudes clashed in trying to resolve (negotiate) the angst of poor black island women, whose Gullah branded them as black, disconnected, and culturally ignorant. The director of this state hospital, a Dr. William McCord, in explaining his reason not to condescend to speak to  his disgruntled employees, said: “I’m not about to turn a twenty-five million dollar complex over to a bunch of people who don’t have a grammar school education.”

In short, the smart cats in the business suits, Nicholas and SCLC (their organizational agendas fulfilled) got scared, cut a deal with the bosses with no consultation with the island sisters, and their leader Mary Moultrie, to whom a union official had told early on that she was not leading anything and sent her out of town on a speaking tour. She was not in Charleston when the deal was made.

Andy Young told Tom Dent, uneasily, “if a campaign drags on too long, everyone loses sight of the issues.” Andy continued to cover his tracks like a skilled tracker, “dramatic speeches can’t last forever . . . campaigns have natural peaks and valleys.” After the big wigs left town, the women only received a quarter raise and the power that be returned to their old ways. 

Mary Moultrie was forced to resign. Her story is a most intriguing one, just as powerful as that of Fannie Lou Hamer of Ruleville, Mississippi or Bea Crockett in Baltimore.

The Charleston section is a good read on other matters than labor. It exposes the race and class attitudes of those blacks associated with the Charleston NAACP and their resentment toward SCLC and 1199. Tom interviewed Miriam DeCosta-Willis, whose family are native Charlestonians:


I love [Charleston] but there's so much division here; class stratification, based on family, lineage, color, hair, along with the tremendous disparities between the black have and have nots. It's like New Orleans and the Caribbean. The Brown Society worked to extend stratification.

We are left with the sense that Charleston is a "dying community," "isolated and roundly paranoid," people who cannot trust their own people. That the blacks who are well-off identify more with "the families their families worked for" than the Low Country culture of the Gullah folk, I found such reactionary racial attitudes, which I thought had died, astounding, shocking, and distressing.

The Orangeburg story is similar to the one of Greensboro and Nelson Johnson. Here, Cleve Sellers of SNCC was arrested and jailed, and the fascist police force rewarded for their Southern gallantry in killing and wounding our children. Again, white leaders never attempted to work with moderate Negro leaders, to mediate and guide the changes that were necessary. They came down on the students with clubs and gunfire. At the center of the conflict was a white man who closed his bowling alley to the black students at nearby South Carolina State. Sellers, like Johnson, returned to school; Sellers received a Ph.D. in education. 

Tom points out numerous individual achievements, even by those who made many sacrifices for the Movement. But for the masses of Negro Southerners, the story is a different one. The economic powers in the Deep South associated with agriculture "shifted away from the labor intensive work, and away from small independent farms and business." They no longer needed Negro men and women in the fields hoeing and picking; new agriculture technologies rendered them obsolete. Their movement to the cities did not resolve their economic crises. Tom explains:


There are few new opportunities for employment in cities like Birmingham, Montgomery, Memphis, Atlanta, or Albany for immigrants without high-tech skills. Such people either end up on government assistance which is becoming ever more grudging, or become entrapped in even worse fates like the underground world of drugs and crime.

The poor blacks of the South have been rendered "economically useless." For the masses Tom got the "impression of widespread idleness and poverty." Under-funding in education has retarded the struggle for upward mobility.

There is only one shortcoming of the book: it does not have an index, which makes it a little difficult finding material if one has not made notes or marked up one's book. But that's a small matter and takes away nothing from this great accomplishment that gives us a portrait of our struggles and the distance we still have yet to travel. My counsel is buy, steal, or borrow the book, if not for yourself then for your children. Demand that it be placed on every school reading list. 

Our struggle for social justice can be and must be continued and sustained and Southern Journey  is the book to help young people understand where we were and where we are now and what is needed for the future.

posted 16 August 2005

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I wrote a few articles for the newspaper [The East Village Other], one of which was a blast at the owner of The Metro, who’d hired some plainclothes thugs to monitor blacks who attended poetry readings there. He’d previously threatened musician Archie Shepp and his “Goldwater for President” sign in the window was meant to be a red flag for blacks. One night, one of them attacked Tom Dent, the leader of our magazine Umbra (one of the most important literary magazines to be published, though it gets ignored because the media, when covering the Lower East Side of the 1960s, bond with those who resembled their journalists and their tokens.) It was at Umbra workshops where the revolution in Black Arts began.

I went to Tom Dent’s aid and was punched. Penny and I left the Le Metro Café and halfway home I turned and went back. Poet Walter Lowenfels was reading. I told Walter that if he continued reading I would never speak to him again. The café emptied out and that was the end of the readings there. William Burroughs, who was scheduled to read the following week, cancelled. After a weekend of searching for other places, bars, restaurants, coffee shops, where readings might be held, Paul Blackburn and I asked the then rector, Michael J. C. Allen, whether we could hold readings at St. Mark’s Church.

That was the beginning of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project. Joel Oppenheimer ran the poetry workshop; I ran the fiction workshop. If you check out the St. Mark’s Poetry website, none of this is mentioned, another example of how the black participation in the counterculture gets expunged from the record.Ishmael Reed, EastVillage

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The Price of Civilization

Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity

By Jeffrey D. Sachs

The Price of Civilization is a book that is essential reading for every American. In a forceful, impassioned, and personal voice, he offers not only a searing and incisive diagnosis of our country’s economic ills but also an urgent call for Americans to restore the virtues of fairness, honesty, and foresight as the foundations of national prosperity. Sachs finds that both political parties—and many leading economists—have missed the big picture, offering shortsighted solutions such as stimulus spending or tax cuts to address complex economic problems that require deeper solutions. Sachs argues that we have profoundly underestimated globalization’s long-term effects on our country, which create deep and largely unmet challenges with regard to jobs, incomes, poverty, and the environment. America’s single biggest economic failure, Sachs argues, is its inability to come to grips with the new global economic realities.

Sachs describes a political system that has lost its ethical moorings, in which ever-rising campaign contributions and lobbying outlays overpower the voice of the citizenry. . . . Sachs offers a plan to turn the crisis around. He argues persuasively that the problem is not America’s abiding values, which remain generous and pragmatic, but the ease with which political spin and consumerism run circles around those values. He bids the reader to reclaim the virtues of good citizenship and mindfulness toward the economy and one another.

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Marcus Bruce Christian

Selected Diary Notes / Selected Poems  / Selected Letters

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American Uprising

The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt

By Daniel Rasmussen

In January 1811, a group of around 500 enslaved men, dressed in military uniforms and armed with guns, cane knives, and axes, rose up from the slave plantations around New Orleans and set out to conquer the city. They decided that they would die before they would work another day of back—breaking labor in the hot Louisiana sun. Ethnically diverse, politically astute, and highly organized, this slave army challenged not only the economic system of plantation agriculture but also American expansion. Their march represented the largest act of armed resistance against slavery in the history of the United States—and one of the defining moments in the history of New Orleans and the nation.

American Uprising is the riveting and long—neglected story of this elaborate plot, the rebel army’s dramatic march on the city and its shocking conclusion. No North American slave revolt—not Gabriel Prosser, not Denmark Vesey, not Nat Turner—has rivaled the scale of this rebellion either in terms of the number of the slaves involved or in terms of the number who were killed. Over 100 slaves were slaughtered by federal troops and French planters, who then sought to write the event out of history and prevent the spread of the slaves’ revolutionary philosophy. With the Haitian Revolution a recent memory and the War of 1812 looming on the horizon, the revolt had epic consequences for America. Through groundbreaking original research, Daniel Rasmussen offers a window into the young expansionist country, illuminating the early history of New Orleans and providing new insight into the path to the Civil War, and the slave revolutionaries who fought and died while standing up against injustice. This book represents a significant contribution to African American history and the struggle for civil rights in this country.

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Andrew Johnson: The 17th President, 1865-1869

By Annette Gordon-Reed

Andrew Johnson, the seventeenth man to ascend to the highest office in the land, is generally regarded by historians as among the weakest presidents. Gordon-Reed has no intention of moving Johnson up in rank (“America went from the best to the worst in one presidential term,” she corroborates). So this is no reputation rescue. Gordon-Reed, author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (2008), which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, takes as her task explaining why we should look anew at such a disastrous chief executive. She reasons he is worth looking at, though her reasoning yields a far from sympathetic look. In a short biography, all bases can be covered, but the author is still left to exercise the tone of a personal essay, which this author accomplishes brilliantly. Her personal take on Johnson is that his inability to remake the country after it was torn apart rested on his deplorable view of black Americans.

 In practical terms, his failure derived from his stubborn refusal to compromise with Congress in the abiding post-Lincoln controversy over who was to supervise the Reconstruction, the executive or the legislative branch. A failure, yes, but more than that, a failure at an extremely critical time in American history.Booklist

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Black Americans in Congress, 1870-2007

By Matthew Wasniewski

Black Americans in Congress, 1870–2007 beautifully prepared volume—is a comprehensive history of the more than 120 African Americans who have served in the United States Congress. Written for a general audience, this book contains a profile of each African-American Member, including notables such as Hiram Revels, Joseph Rainey, Oscar De Priest, Adam Clayton Powell, Shirley Chisholm, Gus Hawkins, and Barbara Jordan. Individual profiles are introduced by contextual essays that explain major events in congressional and U.S. history. Part I provides four chronologically organized chapters under the heading "Former Black Members of Congress." Each chapter provides a lengthy biographical sketch of the members who served during the period addressed, along with a narrative historical account of the era and tables of information about the Congress during that time. Part II provides similar information about current African-American members. There are 10 appendixes providing tabular information of a variety of sorts about the service of Black members, including such things as a summary list, service on committees and in party leadership posts, familial connections, and so forth.

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Southern Journey

A Return to the Civil Rights Movement

By Tom Dent

A black youth reared in segregated New Orleans, Dent went to Mississippi for the civil rights movement, and that experience stuck with him. So in 1991, he decided to work his way south from Greensboro, N.C., to Mississippi, skirting both large cities and important officials, to talk to (mostly) black folk and to assess the movement's legacy. At times, Dent's meandering approach lacks depth and is unwieldy, but his personal connection to his inquiry informs his story with commitment. In Greensboro, the unresolved gap between blacks and whites, exemplified in an anniversary celebration of the city's historic sit-ins, remind Dent "of the strained interracial meetings of the 1950s."

In Orangeburg, S.C., a black academic tells him ruefully that many social-work students go into "criminal justice" lacking the broader awareness of the politics behind the new programs. In Albany, Ga., Dent discerns signs of material progress but deep divisions not only between the races but also within the black community. In Mississippi, where he sees black political victories as having had a relatively small payoff, he becomes convinced that a new black organization is needed to supplant the NAACP to address national political issues of special concern to blacks (education, unemployment) and to monitor cases of police and official abuse and discrimination. Though not quite a complete plan, it's a constructive response to Dent's conclusion that the civil rights movement opened up doors, but "once inside, well, there was hardly anything there."—Publishers Weekly

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Audio: My Story, My Song (Featuring blues guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington)

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.


As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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Weep Not, Child

By Ngugi wa Thiong'o

This is a powerful, moving story that details the effects of the infamous Mau Mau war, the African nationalist revolt against colonial oppression in Kenya, on the lives of ordinary men and women, and on one family in particular. Two brothers, Njoroge and Kamau, stand on a rubbish heap and look into their futures. Njoroge is excited; his family has decided that he will attend school, while Kamau will train to be a carpenter. Together they will serve their countrythe teacher and the craftsman. But this is Kenya and the times are against them. In the forests, the Mau Mau is waging war against the white government, and the two brothers and their family need to decide where their loyalties lie. For the practical Kamau the choice is simple, but for Njoroge the scholar, the dream of progress through learning is a hard one to give up.—Penguin 

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Captain of the Planter: The Story of Robert Smalls

By Dorothy Sterling

Dorothy Sterling’s biography of Robert Smalls is Captain of the Planter: The Story of Robert Smalls (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1958). In most history books, the contributions of Negroes during the Civil War and Reconstructions are ignored. Robert Smalls was one of the heroes who is rarely mentioned. He was a Negro slave who stole a ship from the Confederates, served on it with the Union Army with distinction, and finally served several terms in Congress.

All this was accomplished against the handicaps first of slavery, then of the prejudice of the Union Army, and finally of the Jim Crow laws, which eventually conquered him. Besides its value in contradicting the history book insinuation that the Negro was incapable of political enterprise and that the South was right in imposing Jim Crow laws, Captain of the Planter is an exciting adventure story. Captain Smalls’ escape from slavery and his battle exploits make interesting reading, and the style is fast moving.—Barbara Dodds / Legacy of Robert Smalls

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Related files:    Tom Dent Bio   Tom Dent Speaks      Southern Journey  Tom Dent on Marcus B. Christian  The Art of Tom Dent  My Father Is Dead   Jessie Covington Dent